The Pro Football Hall of Fame came to Stow on Monday morning when Larry Csonka paid a visit to his old stomping grounds.
Stow-Munroe Falls High School students, faculty and administrators greeted Csonka, a Pro Football Hall of Fame member, with a standing ovation as he entered James G. Tyree Gymnasium and was presented with a “Hometown Hall of Famers” plaque from the hall of fame.
Csonka, who will be 67 on Christmas Day, delivered a witty 20-minute speech to the attendees.
He immediately engaged the Stow student body of about 1,850 teenagers by referring to himself as a “gray-haired gentleman” and reflected on when he was their age he “rarely listened to some old fart talking at an assembly.”
Csonka’s entertaining talk touched upon listening to adults for guidance, team play, sportsmanship and, of course, football.
He talked about not condoning bullying and about the people who shaped his life.
Friend and Stow graduate Ron Marhofer presented Csonka with the plaque. The series is a national program honoring the hometown roots of the sport’s greatest coaches, players, and contributors with ceremonies and plaque dedication events in local communities.
“He taught me how to play with rage,” Csonka said of Marhofer. “He also taught me how to play within the confines of rules and sportsmanship, which I admired.”
Csonka’s mother, Millie, 90, sat in the front row near the stage with his sister Nancy and brother Joe. Companion Audrey Bradshaw was in attendance and said Csonka’s other siblings, Andy, Norita and Anita, and his three children live out of town and were unable to attend. Former coaches and teammates also sat near the family.
Country boy becomes star
Marhofer said he first met Csonka in 1957 when “gas was 31 cents a gallon and five dollars could fill your tank.”
“I was in seventh grade and Larry was in the sixth grade,” Marhofer said. “He was more of a tall and awkward kid. He grew up on Progress Park Dr., which is now Fox Den Golf Course. He was this awkward country boy.”
Dick Fortner came into Csonka’s life as Stow’s football coach and in 1962 the Bulldogs won the Metropolitan championship with a 9-1 record. Csonka was a junior that season and Marhofer was a senior. Csonka transitioned to playing fullback that year after being a lineman. He grew 2½ inches and gained 33 pounds the summer before the season.
“He was a ‘Glory Boy’ in the backfield,” Marhofer joked. “When he ran the ball it would take several players to take him down. Many times he would take three or four defenders into the end zone with him.”
Csonka continued that running style in college and as a pro, growing to 6-foot-3 and weighing between 237 to 255 pounds as he “bulldozed his way into the hall of fame.”
A highlight package showed Csonka in his prime on stage just before Csonka himself addressed the audience, which included Stow’s football team and marching band.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for our kids to see one of our great alumni,” Stow Principal Chris DiMauro said. “As Larry mentioned during his speech, you never know what life will bring you, even in a small town like Stow. It was an appropriate message that he delivered. He definitely noted the people who were important in his life. It is nice to see that an NFL hall of famer thinks all the way back to his junior high and high school coaches, and what profound effect they had on his career trajectory.”
Violent running back
Csonka was known for his aggressive and physical running style. He preferred to inflict pain and run over defenders by rushing the ball inside, between the hash marks on the field. Breaking would-be tackle attempts was commonplace for Csonka, who once was penalized for unnecessary roughness while running the ball.
Csonka graduated from Stow in 1964 and proceeded to star at Syracuse University and in the NFL as a fullback. He admitted Monday that he went from a kid who was bullied to a bully as he grew.
He credited Larry Saltis, a former teacher and assistant principal, for leading him away from being a bully.
“He was the guy who changed the direction of my life,” Csonka said. “He taught me how to be a better teammate and a better person.”
Fortner and Stow assistant football coach Richard Blake were also key figures in Csonka’s path to the NFL along with his parents and five siblings.
Csonka was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the first round in 1968 and put together a career that concluded in 1979. He played eight of his 12 seasons with the Dolphins, winning two Super Bowls (VII and VIII) with seven future hall of famers — Csonka, Nick Buoniconti, Bob Griese, Jim Langer, Larry Little and Paul Warfield and Don Shula.
The Dolphins 1972-1973 team went 17-0, the only team to have a perfect record. Csonka was named Super Bowl VIII MVP in 1974. He was enshrined in the hall of fame in 1987 with 8,081 rushing yards on 1,891 carries, 64 rushing touchdowns.
In three seasons at Syracuse, Csonka rushed for a then-school record 2,934 yards. In 1989, he was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Csonka said Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski were two players he admired, and he jumped at the chance to see them in person at the groundbreaking ceremony for the hall of fame in Canton in August of 1962.
Csonka and friends skipped school to make the trip. Csonka said Monday he met Nagurski two decades later.
“If you check the records, you will see I did seven book reports on Bronko Nagurski, seven years in a row,” Csonka said. “I idolized that man. He was a defensive tackle and a fullback. My personal hero. I got to meet him and we shook hands. He had big hands. It was like shaking a catcher’s mitt.”
Csonka spends most of his time now living between three properties, Wasilla, Alaska; Lisbon, Ohio; and Oak Hill, Fla. He has hosted hunting and fishing shows on television and provided analysis, appeared in movies and been a motivational speaker.
“The day can be summed up in a couple of comments, greatness and hometown pride,” Stow Athletic Director Cyle Feldman said. “Somebody said it on stage and that is exactly what it is. It has been a great day honoring Larry Csonka, who is one of our greatest alumni.”
Michael Beaven can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.